Seniors keep up Iowa City writing tradition

BY ELLE WIGNALL | JULY 05, 2012 6:30 AM

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In a quiet classroom on the second floor of the Senior Center, 10 to 20 people meet every other Friday, telling the stories of their professions, their travels, and their families.

"My life isn't that interesting," 74-year-old Suzanne Koury said. "Except for the fact that, you know, I remember having an ice box."

Write Your Life Story is a 10-year-old class at the center available free for seniors. Originally started by Jessica Renaud, Chuck Felling now facilitates and writes in the class.

"It's not like other writing classes," he said. "We don't have any rules or sub-topics where there's any editing done. People encourage people to write mainly by appreciating what they've written."

The class brings together new writers and experienced writers to read stories about everything and encourage each other.

"Every other Friday, people come because they make friends," Feller said. "They look forward to certain people telling certain stories."

As Feller runs the class of eight one Friday, he tells them, "Telling your life story is not a linear process."

And many members of the group tell their life stories from very different aspects. Retired dietitian Koury goes to the class to work on adding a narrative to her family genealogy.

"I went there thinking I wanted to write about my dad, and then my mom, and then me, and pass it on to my kids, and nieces, and nephews," she said. "I didn't know where to start, so I went there the first time, and it was just like, 'Oh, I can just start here.' "

Koury said the class helps keep her focused when thinking about the experiences she had with her parents.

"There was no email, and the phone back then was expensive — so you wrote letters," she said. "And my dad, he was the letter writer."

Sharing stories such as this with other senior citizens has been a rewarding experience for several members of the class.

"I'm learning a little bit about what they call creative writing, but I still like the plain, scientific style," said 86-year-old retired nurse Ardis O'Dell. "It goes with my personality more than the flowers and what colors the leaves are."

She has been a member of the class since 2005 after a long career in nursing took her all over the world.

"I started during World War II," O'Dell said. "They had cadet nurses, and that was established so that the government paid for nurses' education."

She shares stories of her career, her travels, her retirement, and all sorts of anecdotes with the class.

"It's an acquaintance I wouldn't ever get if I weren't in class," O'Dell said. "Some are superb and should [all be published]."

Senior Center program specialist Michelle Buhman said the interest in writing classes has increased.

"People are asking for more and more writing classes, so I'm always on the lookout for volunteer instructors," she said. "We did a survey in 2011, and one of the things people have been asking for is actually some fiction-writing classes."

Write Your Life Story is open to members of the center to share their stories in any mode they wish.

"They all have something to tell," Feller said. "They all want to be heard, to leave a mark whether it be for their families, for their friends, or for themselves."

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